The Two Faces of Facebook

Steve Rubel on Digital Communications

By Published on .

I spend a lot of time gazing into a crystal ball that I know is going to be cloudy half the time. Lately I have been pondering Facebook's future.

Facebook is clearly on a roll and is knocking on Google's door as the biggest site on the web. Will it continue to dominate or see its lead slip? Here are two potential outcomes.

Steve Rubel
Photo: JC Bourcart
Steve Rubel is a marketing strategist and blogger. He is senior VP-director of insights at Edelman Digital.

The Google Scenario: In the more rosy picture, Facebook remains the disrupter. It transforms how we use the web.

Just as search changed our expectations that everything we want to know is accessible if we Google it, Facebook is the inverse. If information is important, it will find us through our friends and their friends and so on. We don't have to Google it.

"Trends from friends" is as transformative as search. The more we use Facebook and the more we create and connect there, the smarter it gets in realizing what we need and when. We don't have to ask.

The opportunity cost of switching to an alternative is simply too great. This is why millions remain with the same IM network they first tried years ago.

Facebook, like Google, groks data. And they know how to study and use it to make the experience and value grow with every status update, photo, connection and interaction. Once they get serious about search -- and consumers see the value in using it for finding curated information -- Facebook's value and power could grow.

The AOL Scenario: It's hard to believe but 10 years ago AOL was once dominant. It was a hit with advertisers.

Publishers paid for position and built grand palaces. It was the place to be. It was also a walled garden. Sound familliar? This begs the question: Could Facebook follow the same path? Possibly.

Through continuous innovation Facebook is trying not to become AOL. That's the smart play. However, each successive update has irked consumers. The revamped news feed, which rolled out last week, is just the latest.

So far we keep coming back; but you have to wonder if a social network has nine lives. It's possible fickle consumers will eventually migrate elsewhere.

Where might they turn? Just as with AOL they'll go everywhere. The entire web is becoming social. Facebook Connect is a play to make this happen on their terms. However this is where Google, Yahoo and other stalwarts could shine. They already control millions of IM and email address books and have lots of data.

So which mask will Facebook don -- Google's or AOL's? My bet right now is Google's.

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